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Strange and Fantastic Tales of the 20th Century: ‘Carnival of Souls’

It has sacrilegious organ playing!

Strange and Fantastic Tales of the 20th Century is a look back at the weirdest, most memorable, and most off center movies of the 20th century. From head turning horror to oddball science fiction this column examines the films that will leave a lasting impression for centuries to come.

Ray Bradbury wrote about the sinister allure of carnivals and their effects on impressionable minds in the 1962 novel Something Wicked this Way Comes. People of all ages became seduced by the pull of the circus tents and the macabre music issuing from the carousel. Full of fear and excitement, the characters succumbed to the pull of the dark carnival. The same year Something Wicked was published, Herk Harvey’s cult classic film Carnival of Souls made its debut. You may have seen this on its own or you may have seen it accompanied by the commentary of Tom Servo and Croooooow! Whether you were delighted, baffled, or amused by it, Carnival of Souls has left an impression on American cinema, making it a strange and fantastic tale of the 20th century.

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It’s really not wise to race your car on a rickety old bridge. It’s especially unadvisable if you are not Dominic Toretto. Carnival of Souls begins with a group of young women, on a very boring ride, decide to spice things up when a group of young men challenge them to a race. Caution be damned, they race on a bridge and the car full of women plummets into the lake below. The sole survivor is Mary Henry, a faithless organ player for the local church. Things take a turn for Mary as she starts a job at a new church in a new town. 

Strange and Fantastic Tales of the 20th Century: 'Carnival of Souls'

Your dates are here . . .

Mary begins to see a ghostly figure of a man (played by Herk Harvey). The fear of this strange man drives her to spend time with John Linden (Sidney Berger), the horny drunk from across the hall. John is many things, but really he is quite disgusting. He pressures Mary to sleep with him, calls her a tease when she won’t do it and accuses her of being strange for not hopping onto her back at the sight of him. In all fairness to John, Mary is weird and gives off strange signals. She goes from warm and friendly to distant and paranoid. Still, John really should not expect anything from her. Yet, this brings up another key theme in the film. Mary is often referred to as strange and unconventional by the people she meets. She is strange because she is uninterested in men and she is strange because she plays the organ, but does not feel a connection to religion. 

Mary is also seen as weird because she becomes obsessed with an abandoned carnival. The isolation of the scenes in the carnival are eerie, especially when seen in black and white. Why does the carnival have such a hold on Mary? It seems to call to her like the characters in Something Wicked This Way Comes

Strange and Fantastic Tales of the 20th Century: 'Carnival of Souls'

Written by John Clifford and Herk Harvey, one has to wonder what her unconventionality might stand for. The audio is off and the acting is pretty odd at times, but one cannot deny that there is something that draws in the audience. Camera angles and shots are very reminiscent of George A. Romero’s work. And the bizarre character behavior and appearance will instantly make you think of David Lynch. 

Do you think you can watch this film without wanting to trespass on a defunct amusement park? Do you think you can watch it in one sitting? Dare to watch it all the way to its shocking conclusion.  Step right up and press play. Watch Carnival of Souls with your favorite alcoholic from across the hall. 

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